Royalties for folklore

Published: Tuesday 15 February 1994

DEVELOPED countries are busy increasing the breadth and depth of the intellectual property regime, using accusations of piracy. Yet, the innovations that multinationals have patented are heavily dependent on the biological and artistic knowledge of the people of the South.

The argument that R&D to isolate, separate and screen genes costs millions of dollars and so compensation for collecting a few grams of a plant is not important, is biased. It narrows the time frame to a few decades, disregarding a society's investment in managing its biological wealth for centuries. The "indigenous knowledge developers" of the South have been consistently sidelined in this South-to-North "technology transfer".

Part of the South's poverty can be attributed to the non-recognition of the economic value of the South's germplasm taken by the food and pharmaceutical industries of the North. This transfer has taken place for decades without the knowledge and informed participation of the seller: the farmers and tribal populations of the South.

India should urgently enact a law to reverse this tide and initiate a political campaign of counter-piracy to ensure that any innovation based on the South's knowledge and genetic materials should benefit it first.

The key legal problem is to define clearly who owns biodiversity. Current intellectual property rights (IPR) cover innovations made by individuals and companies. However, the community-based knowledge of medicinal healers and small farmers has been denied similar protection, although it is precisely these innovators who have been at the forefront of providing biological knowledge.

India's biodiversity laws should create a counter-IPR system that gives tribal and other communities the full legal rights over their biological knowledge. This legislation should develop the concept of an internationally applicable system for payment of royalties for the use of folk knowledge in the same manner as humankind developed the current system of patents for private and corporate knowledge. No national or international entrepreneur should be allowed to use community knowledge without adequate payments directed to the communities that provided it in the first place.

This is specified in the biodiversity convention. Once India ratifies the convention, it has the moral responsibility of enacting such a law. Not doing so will mean bartering away the rights of millions of poor rural communities and tribal populations. The Indian government has a responsibility to its poor and an opportunity to set an example for the rest of the world.

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